TEDxUCLA 2017: Gravity

Why everyone should hack


About Mihir

Mihir Mathur is a sophomore studying Computer Science at UCLA. He is passionate about creating technology products and designing experiences. He is the newly elected President at UCLA Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), one of the largest student-run computer science organizations in Southern California. Mihir is the co-founder of UCLA Creative Labs, a digital design collaboration that connects the best developers and the best designers at UCLA. He is also one of the lead organizers for LA Hacks.


Imagine this: It is a windy evening, and you are at a beach. You have a cup of coffee in your hand and you’re in a hurry to head back home. But before you head back to your car, you have to dispose of that cup.

Now there are three bins: landfill, compost, and recycle. Quick: pick one.

If you’re like most people, you will just stand there and have a hard time deciding which men to pick, and you’ll eventually pick the landfill bin.

How do I know this? Well, I conducted a quick validation at UCLA by taking photos of the contents of the bins. Shockingly, educated students at UCLA find it really challenging to correctly dispose waste.

I can only imagine how people around the world dispose waste. But why is this a big deal?

First of all, a landfill-centric approach is followed in the world. A large volume of landfill results in the production of greenhouse gases like methane that are extremely harmful to the environment. Moreover, this landfill waste is hauled by diesel-powered vehicles that produce more pollutants.

Since I was very troubled each time I had to throw anything, I made an application that helps sort waste. The way it works is that you show any waste item to your webcam and it’ll tell you with high accuracy where you should throw it.

Consider this: trash bins have had no major innovation in centuries. Wouldn’t it be convenient if we could just toss our waste and the bin sorts it automatically? To integrate my application within a bin, all you need is a cheap wi-fi-enabled webcam and a slider that sorts the waste.

If we actually build smart bins like these and put them in public places, the amount of landfill waste produced would reduce starkly which means a reduction in the levels of methane as well as saving millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money that currently goes into managing huge landfills.

But here’s the best part about this idea: I prototyped this application with a couple of other people over a weekend at a hackathon. Don’t be too impressed! Thousands of students like me spend their weekends at hackathons building amazing products.

Let me take a step back. What is a hackathon? A hackathon is an event where people with different skillsets collaborate for about 36 hours straight to build something or solve a problem in an unconventional way. You hack solutions together at a hackathon. The productivity and the output that you can achieve when you work for 36 hours straight with completely new people are just phenomenal.

Now when I say 36 hours, I don’t mean that you stay up for 36 hours. What I mean is that you stay focused and dedicated on one single goal. You can obviously sleep, but even in your dreams you’re thinking about that one goal.

Now here’s a little secret hackathons are not just for computer science engineers. These events are getting diverse every day. More and more business majors, designers, music majors are now attending hackathons.

Everyone can hack. In fact, everyone should hack.

Think about it: a simple idea that I and a couple of other people came up with and prototyped in a weekend at a hackathon has the power to impact the waste management industry, the environment, and the economy. So the ideas that everyone can come up with, if you interact with completely new people and work with them for two days straight, would be transformative.

Every industry, every field has many problems. And that is why everyone should hack.

Now when you talk to new people for a long while, when you brainstorm, you will be amazed with what you come up with. Because our brain is very smart, it doesn’t impose too many restrictions when the time is less. You would have experienced that you come up with some of the fastest and best solutions when you’re approaching a deadline.

For creative, extraordinary, unique solutions, we don’t need decades, years, or months. All we need is 36 hours: 36 hours of dedicated and focused problem-solving.

So if you’re a student, go to a collegiate hackathon. If you’re a professional, you can start one. All it takes is some people, some space, and obviously a ton of caffeine.

We all face problems daily. For me, it was figuring out the right bin. Instead of complaining about these problems, I say we hack. Let’s tinker at those problems. Because your little hack might be like one tiny pebble thrown in a pond that creates a thousand ripples.

So my question to you today is: if I gave you 36 hours free of all responsibilities, what would you build? Thank you.